Under 2's

Why ‘Talk’ Matters in Baby Rooms

  • Why ‘Talk’ Matters in Baby Rooms

Dr Kathy Goouch and Dr Sacha Powell explore the positive role two different types of ‘talk’ can play in improving the quality of care in our under-twos provision…

During the Baby Room Project ‘talk’ emerged as a key theme in two quite distinct but overlapping ways: what we will describe here as, firstly, ‘Baby talk’, and secondly, ‘Professional gossip’. As we described in our first article, the business of baby rooms – that is attention to feeding, washing, changing and helping babies to sleep – often seemed to prevent adults in the room from spending time in one-to-one talking and listening opportunities. We talked to our project participants about a claim by charity What About The Children (WATCh) in 2010 that the average time for personal interaction experienced by a baby in daycare is four minutes per day, and they reported feeling unsurprised by this; they felt it could potentially be the reality of practice.

Assumptions are often made that simply being female will be enough to ensure that you know how to respond to babies, to engage in ‘Baby talk’. But there is research – see Alison Gopnik’s The Philosophical Baby (The Bodley Head, 2009) – to support the idea that all adults are predisposed to respond to and care for babies and young children. However, we learned during the Project that when face to face with a baby some practitioners feel tongue-tied and so, unless involved in a pre-planned play activity, they tend not to talk. One of the critical friends of the project, Liz Attenborough (previously of Talk to Your Baby at the National Literacy Trust), thought that this happened for three reasons:

● because practitioners simply don’t know what to say;

● because they’re not sure it’s worth talking to babies because ‘they don’t talk back’; and

● because they felt self-conscious talking to babies.

It was not uncommon to hear, as one practitioner reports below, that, in what has been described as the ‘institutional rush’ of daycare settings, both older infants and ‘louder’ children demand more attention and therefore receive greater interaction and ultimately more closeness with adults than ‘good’ babies:

I suppose before I probably thought the babies don’t need as much one-to-one as an older one; ...a child that’s louder gets the attention, but a baby laying there still under a mobile, they do still need the interaction with you as much as the louder ones and as much as a 15 or 18 month old child. Goouch and Powell – The Baby Room (OUP, 2013)

The importance of talk

However, for some decades, research knowledge has developed and reported the importance of babies being both surrounded by and engaged in talk and listening opportunities in order to learn to imitate mouth movements and the sounds and patterns of language, to begin to process sounds and speech, and to develop conversational relationships within a close professional attachment with adults who care for them. The work of neuroscientists has been invaluable in developing our understanding of how babies’ brains develop at a supremely fast rate, but equally others have charted the impressive rate of communicative learning that occurs from birth – see Lynne Murray and Liz Andrew’s The Social Baby (CP Publishing, 2005). We know that babies take their cues from the people they encounter in their environment. Babies learn to talk by being spoken to and by having an attentive listener. Babies learn to listen by being with adults who model listening and turn taking as their conversation partner. The amount of time invested in the conversation matters, as well as the tone used, the prosodic aspects (the structure of language) used and the affective companionship of the conversation partner who expresses emotion through talk.

In addition to pre-planned play, opportunities found in our project to combine conversation with some of the more prosaic aspects of the role of practitioner in a baby room included, for example, time during the following routine tasks during each day:

● prior to and during changing;

● while washing and cleaning babies;

● wiping faces and hands;

● in preparation for and during mealtimes;

● while preparing a baby to sleep and as he or she begins to sleep.

It may be easy to find reasons why talking to babies is hard to enact, but there are consequences to leaving individual babies in relatively silent spaces or without conversation. And of course, what other activity could be more enjoyable, as well as more important, than talking with babies?

Professional gossip

The second aspect of the talk theme in the Project was that not only were babies sometimes cared for in relative silence but also the practitioners themselves felt isolated and without access to professional conversations. It is rarely possible for baby room practitioners to find ways during their working week to discuss professional issues with a baby room practitioner from another nursery. We were told that professional development targeted at baby room practice was rarely, if ever, available.

Consequently, opportunities to discuss aspects of care were incidentally experienced, if at all, and then generally within the nursery itself. And so, the kind of professional ‘gossip’ that occurs frequently in school staff rooms appeared to be unavailable to them, leading to a sense of neglect amongst the participants in our project.

During Project sessions, the participants were keen to share information, seek comparisons, compare their understanding of national and local requirements, and generally just gossip about their practice and the professional demands made of them. They were keen to view each other’s baby room environment in video footage, and to both question and challenge each other about aspects of care. To further support this we provided our project participants with access to a secure online networking site, The Baby Room NING. Here, a discussion forum was used to describe aspects of care and to enquire about other practitioners’ responses to, for example, policy, record keeping, managing breast milk, responding to parents, sleep arrangements, furniture and many other day-to-day issues.

Additionally, the NING provided links to information on government and other sites, and provided access to academic and professional journal articles.

Talking about babies’ care during the Project helped practitioners to seriously evaluate what they were doing, how they engage with babies’ care and why they work in particular ways. Reflecting on ‘habits of care’ helped them to construct questions, which in turn led to consideration of new forms of attendance to babies and their families, and increased talk interactions. The opportunity for joining in specialised professional development programmes, designed to support baby room practice, should be available and accessible to all adults who work with babies. This is a political and economic investment that is imperative in attempts to ensure quality services for babies and their families.

Time to talk

During the Baby Room Project participants were provided with three important opportunities:

Access – to colleagues, to professional development, to others’ practice;

Time – with colleagues to talk, to listen, to share, to review practice, theory and research;

Permission – to evaluate, review and reflect, to respond to consultations, to have a voice, to think highly of their work with babies.

Through the progress of the Project the practitioners who participated began to talk of their job in higher-status terms. From describing themselves as ‘invisible’ and ‘the lowest of the low’ at the beginning of the Project period, they developed a sense of worth in their work and by the end of the Project period, they talked of ‘looking after the most precious thing in a parent’s life’. Practitioners’ wellbeing and professional self-esteem clearly plays a part in their ability to establish strong environments in which babies are supported to develop and learn.

Dr Kathy Goouch and Dr Sacha Powell are both Readers at Canterbury Christ Church University.